Veterans, newcomers perform well in first practice

Senior quaterback Kawaun Jakes throws the football in drills on Monday at Smith Stadium. WKU held their first practice of the 2012-13 football season on Monday, Aug. 6.

Lucas Aulbach

They may not have been wearing pads, but the Toppers hit the field for the first practice of the year on Monday as though the bowl berth that never came last season was on the line.

WKU may have fallen just short of that goal last year, but they won’t be surprising anyone this year. Several coaches and players pointed out how different the start of practice seemed this year now that the WKU program finally has some momentum.

Coach Willie Taggart described the difference between Monday and the first practice of the 2010 season as “night and day.”

“Going into training camp, I can remember the last two years going in, I was running around like my hair was on fire,” he said. “Now it’s just so relaxed and a lot more easier and our coaches understand what to do, our players understand what to do, know where to be.”

The buzz surrounding the program stems from its finish to last season. The Toppers started the season 0-4 last year before winning seven of their last eight games, with their one loss coming against national runner-up LSU.

Still, despite finishing 7-5, WKU was one of two bowl-eligible teams in the country to not get invited to a bowl game.

Senior defensive tackle Jamarcus Allen said he’s just now moving on.

“I’m starting to get over it now because I know Sept. 1 (the season-opener against Austin Peay) is going to be a good game,” he said.

Senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes said he thinks the team can turn last season’s disappointing end into inspiration.

“At the end of the day, we didn’t get where we wanted to go,” Jakes said. “It’s just extra motivation for the whole team.”

Monday’s practice was a return to form for the Toppers, who hadn’t practiced on the field together since the Red-White scrimmage in April. The team made plays all over the field, from upperclassmen to freshmen.

One player who caught the eye of Taggart was freshman running back Leon Allen. The coach said he was impressed with the poise of the newcomer.

“For him to go out and know what to do, more than anything, and not make mental mistakes was great to see,” Taggart said of Allen. “Usually on the first day you see those guys make a lot of mental mistakes — he didn’t make many at all. I don’t remember one, to be honest with you.”

It’s hard to project how a player will fare in the regular season based on one practice, though, Taggart emphasized, and even harder when the players aren’t wearing pads.

“It’s Day One, and I’m not going to put too much stock in that because we don’t have the pads on,” he said. “Once we put the pads on, ask me that question again and I’ll give you a better answer.”

Leon Allen wasn’t the only one to catch the coach’s eye on the first day. Sophomore wide receiver Willie McNeal turned heads on the field on Monday as he prepares for the 2012 season, his first since blowing out his knee in the 2011 spring.

Taggart said it was great to see McNeal return to the team.

“Willie brings a lot to our football team, not just his athletic ability, but just the whole morale and getting our guys up,” he said. “Not only our players, but some of our coaches, too. He does a great job of really keeping everybody upbeat.”

Another wide receiver returning from an injury who was on the field on Monday is Marcus Vasquez.

The senior, who is coming back from an ACL tear suffered in a September loss to Indiana State last season, took several reps over the course of the practice.

Taggart said he plans to take his time and ease Vasquez into the gameplan.

“In training camp he’s not going to help himself much, we’re just going to bring him along gradually,” he said. “He’s had two knee surgeries and we don’t want to rush that.”

Many of the standout players from last year’s team will put on the red and white for the Toppers again this season, but the team will be missing some familiar faces, including junior defensive lineman Tevin Holliman, who was shot at a Bowling Green bar in April.

Sophomore Ricardo Singh, who was also shot in the altercation, has recovered and will suit up for WKU this season.

The Toppers won’t have much time to catch their breath after their first practice. WKU has practices scheduled every day until Aug. 19, the only day this month that the athletes have off.

The month of practices should give Taggart and his coaching staff plenty of time to get their depth chart ready before the season opener at home against Austin Peay on Sept. 1.

Taggart said that he will have a lot of thinking to do, as no starting job is safe at this point.

“Every single position is up for grabs,” he said. “The guys that have it, they have it right now.”